The Bride Wore Black

From the Chicago Reader (May 1, 1991). Twilight Time’s recent Blu-Ray of this film has a lot of interesting material about the changes made by Truffaut to Bernard Herrmann’s score.  — J.R.

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Despite the dedication of this 1967 film to Hitchcock and the use of his most distinguished collaborator, composer Bernard Herrmann, Francois Truffaut’s first Cornell Woolrich adaptation — the second was Mississippi Mermaid — is most memorable for lyrical moods and poetic flights of fancy that don’t seem especially Hitchcockian. Jeanne Moreau stalks gracefully through the film, wooing and dispatching a series of men like an avenging angel whose motivating obsession is spelled out only gradually; among her prey are Claude Rich, Jean-Claude Brialy, Michel Bouquet, Michel Lonsdale, and Charles Denner. Basically an exercice de style, and a good one at that. In French with subtitles. 107 min. (JR)

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Sátántangó (Film and Novel) as Faulknerian Reverie

In most respects, I’m delighted and honored that a version of the following essay was published in Issue Two of the journal Music & Literature, which is devoted to László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr, and Max Neumann, In fact, this essay was commissioned by the editors of this handsome special issue, and my only reason for posting my original version is that a few stylistic edits were made, in what I’m sure were sincere efforts to clarify some of the entanglements in my lengthy sentences, that unfortunately yielded some embarrassing factual errors in the piece, as well as a few significant cuts. (It now appears that I read portions of the French translation of Krasznahorkai’s novel before I ever saw Tarr’s film and that Erich Auerbach’s great book Mimesis now includes an analysis of Light in August that no one has previously read; and the remarkable observation from Dan Gunn that I quoted has been deleted.) So, just to keep the record straight, here, for better and for worse, is exactly what I wrote.

More recently, in mid-January 2015, I belatedly received a copy of this article with the above Introduction reprinted in Scalarama, a publication put together by Stanley Schtinter to accompany a tour of Sátántangó in the U.K.Read more »

True Enough (BOYS DON’T CRY & THE STRAIGHT STORY)

From the October 22. 1999 Chicago Reader. — J.R.

Boys Don’t Cry

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Kimberly Peirce

Written by Peirce and Andy Bienen

With Hilary Swank, Chloe Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard, Brendan Sexton III, Alison Folland, Alicia Goranson, and Jeannetta Arnette.

The Straight Story

Rating *** A must see

Directed by David Lynch

Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney

With Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek, Jennifer Edwards-Hughes, James Cada, and Harry Dean Stanton.

The docudrama may be the key dramatic form of the 90s because of the extent to which its simplifications influence the way we make sense of the world around us. Not that we didn’t already have a habit of simplifying and therefore fictionalizing facts. There are perfectly good reasons most of us prefer to believe that one day in December 1955 Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, because her feet were killing her, thereby launching the civil rights movement. This story has a germ of truth, but Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had mapped out their basic strategy for the Montgomery bus boycott at Highlander Folk School in Tennessee well before this incident. Still, the more folkloric, more dramatic version of the episode is the one that sticks — and the one that’s repeated by people who want to explain the civil rights movement in more forcible, more legible terms.… Read more »

Gold Diggers of 1953: Howard Hawks’s GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES

From the Winter 1984/1985 Sight and Sound. Only years after writing and publishing this essay, I recalled seeing a test reel of Cinemascope with my father at an Atlanta movie exhibitors convention in 1953, part of which included a refilming of the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number in CinemaScope. I have no idea whether this still exists, but it may help to account for why some people misremember or wrongly identify the entire film as being in CinemaScope.

For those who might be puzzled by the third illustration from the end, this is Dominique Labourier’s character performing in a nightclub in Céline et Julie vont en bateau, in a sequence that precisely parallels the courtroom sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. – J.R.

First Number: “We’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock”

I don’t believe in the kino-eye; I believe in the kino-fist. — Sergei Eisenstein

Before even the credit titles can appear, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell arrive to a blast of music at screen center from behind a black curtain, in matching orange-red outfits that sizzle the screen — covered with spangles, topped with feathers — to look at one another, toss white ermines toward the camera and out of frame and sing robustly in unison.… Read more »

The Lynch-Pin Fallacy

From Tikkun, November/December 1990, Vol. 5, No. 6. This was my second and (to date) final contribution to this magazine. As I recall, I wasn’t too happy with the way I was edited on this one (although the published version — which they called “Out to Lynch,” and is only slightly altered here — is the only one I have now); I was much happier working with Peter Cole on my previous article for Tikkun, “Notes Towards a Devaluation of Woody Allen”. -– J.R.

“All I know for sure is there’s already more’n a few bad ideas runnin’ around loose out there.” — Sailor to Lula in Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart: The Story of  Sailor and Lula

 

I couldn’t care less about changing the conventions of mainstream television. — David Lynch, November 1989

From The Birth of a Nation to Fatal Attraction, puritanism and political naïveté have frequently turned out be a winning combination in American movies. The recent popularity of David Lynch, however, puts a new spin on this formula. Sailor’s line — repeated in Lynch’s new movie based on Gifford’s novel — in a way summarizes Lynch’s work to date: an oeuvre that has recently expanded from paintings, movies, and a weekly comic strip to include two new TV series (Twin Peaks and American Chronicles, both coproduced by Mark Frost), an opera, a pop record album, commercials for Calvin Klein, a coffee-table book due out next fall, and undoubtedly other enterprises as well.… Read more »

Global Discoveries on DVD: Mitigating Circumstances

My Spring 2014 DVD column for Cinema Scope, posted in March. — J.R.

a-Throne of Blood Criterion

There’s no question that DVDs and Blu-rays are fostering new viewing habits and also new critical protocols and processes in sizing up what we’re watching. A perfect example of what I mean is Criterion’s brilliant idea to release Kurosawa Akira’s Throne of Blood (1957) with two alternative sets of subtitles by Linda Hoaglund and the late Donald Richie, both of whom were also commissioned to write essays explaining the rationales and methodologies of their very different translations—a move that I already wrote about and praised in my fourth DVD column for this magazine, just over a decade ago. So I’m very happy to find these subtitles and essays preserved in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, providing an invaluable pedagogical tool that was (and still is) unavailable to anyone seeing Throne of Blood theatrically.

In 1963, after seeing Jules and Jim, I had the pleasure of reading Roger Greenspun about it in Sight & Sound. I regret this option isn’t readily available today, but I have to admit that in Criterion’s new dual-format edition, I have many other things I can turn to—I’m especially grateful for the dialogue between Dudley Andrew and Robert Stam, an interview with Truffaut’s co-writer Jean Gruault, and a fascinating documentary about the film’s real-life models, all of which, perversely or not, held my interest longer than seeing the film all the way through for the umpteenth time.… Read more »

Take That Corn and Shuck It

From The Soho News (September 8, 1981); tweaked a little on June 6, 2010. — J.R.

Comin’ at Ya!

Written by Lloyd Battista, Wolf lowenthal, and Gene Quintano

Directed by Fernando Baldi

Take This Job and Shove It

Written by Jeff Bernini and Barry Schneider

Based on the song by David Allan Coe

Directed by Gus Trikonis

Let’s face facts. When notions of what a “good” movie is shrinks to the level of TV deepthink like Kramer vs. Kramer or Prince of the City, it may be time to bring the glories of the big-screen “bad” movie back again — at least if what we’re out for is fun and adventure. Unlike the most dutiful Oscar winners, whose notions of the good and proper usually revolve around the relatively straight and narrow, or the collected works of a Bergman or a Fellini that are even more consistent about their consistency — beating you into submission as they gradually meld into one all-purpose archetype — certain bad movies can boast range, unpredictability, and singularly distinctive tastes.

Indeed, a fascinating and suggestive literature has been accumulating for some time about bad movies, ranging from Jack Smith on Maria Montez to Myron Meisel on Edgar G.… Read more »

Inland Empire

From the Chicago Reader (January 26, 2007). — J.R.

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David Lynch’s first digital video is his best and most experimental feature since Eraserhead (1978). Shot piecemeal over at least a year and without a script, this 179-minute meditation builds on Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) as a sinister and critical portrait of Hollywood. But it resists any narrative paraphrase, with several overlapping premises rather than a single consecutive plot. Laura Dern plays an actress who’s been cast in a new feature, as well as a battered housewife and a hooker; there are also Polish characters and a sitcom with giant rabbits in human clothes. The visual qualities include impressionistic soft-focus colors, expressionistic lighting, and disquietingly huge close-ups. With Justin Theroux, Jeremy Irons, Karolina Gruszka, Harry Dean Stanton, and Grace Zabriskie. In English and subtitled Polish. R. (JR)

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Masumura’s Madness + sidebar (Among the Missing: 10 Key Masumura Features)

This was written for Film Comment in 2002, but only the first part was published in their September-October issue that year, under the title “Enlightened Madness”. This was designed to be accompanied by a sidebar highlighting ten of Masumura’s films, but the editor, Gavin Smith, after proposing the sidebar and thereby getting me to revise the first piece accordingly, subsequently decided to place the sidebar only on the magazine’s website, thereby sabotaging my plan for the two pieces to work together, as a two-part unit, and reducing much of the sidebar, as a stand-alone unit, to gibberish.

Much of both parts got recycled years later in an essay included in Movie Mutations, a collection I coedited with Adrian Martin. – J.R.

To appropriate one of the categories of Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, Yasuzo Masumura (1924-1986) is a “subject for further research.” Considering that he made 58 films between 1957 and 1982, none of which has ever had a normal commercial run in this country, that may even be putting it mildly. But so far I’ve managed to see 38, all but one over the past four years, and though the range in quality is enormous, I’d swear by at least half of them.… Read more »

LOVE ME TONIGHT and MULHOLLAND DRIVE

Both of these very short pieces were written in 2002 for Understanding Film Genres, a textbook that for some unexplained reason was never published. Steven Schneider commissioned them.  — J.R.

Love Me Tonight

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There are two distinct aesthetics for movie musicals, regardless of whether they happen to be Hollywood or Bollywood, from the 1930s or the 1950s, in black and white or in color. According to one aesthetic– exemplified by Al Jolson (as in The Jazz Singer) or the team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (as in The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat–a musical is a showcase for talented singers and/or dancers showing what they can do with a particular song or a number. According to the second aesthetic, exemplified by Guys and Dolls—-the two leads of which, Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons, aren’t professional singers or dancers–the musical is a form for showing the world in a particular kind of harmony and grace and for depicting what might be called metaphysical states of being. The leads are still expected to sing in tune, of course, but notions of expertise and virtuosity in relation to their musical performances are no longer the same.

Most musicals, of course, partake of both aesthetics.Read more »

Mulholland Drive

From the Chicago Reader (July 1, 2001). — J.R.

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I’m still trying to decide if this 146-minute piece of hocus-pocus (2001) is David Lynch’s best feature between Eraserhead and Inland Empire. In any case, it’s immensely more likable than his other stabs at neonoir (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway), perhaps because it likes its characters and avoids sentimentalizing or sneering at them (the sort of thing that limited Twin Peaks, at least in spots). Originally conceived and rejected as a TV pilot, then expanded after some French producers stepped in, it has the benefit of Lynch’s own observations about Hollywood, which were fresher at this point than his puritanical notations on small towns in the American heartland. The best-known actors (Ann Miller, Robert Forster, Dan Hedaya) wound up relatively marginalized, while the lesser-known talents (in particular the remarkable Naomi Watts and the glamorous Laura Elena Harring) were invited to take over the movie (and have a field day doing so). The plot slides along agreeably as a tantalizing mystery before becoming almost completely inexplicable, though no less thrilling, in the closing stretches — but that’s what Lynch is famous for. (JR)

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A Time to Lie (CROSS MY HEART)

From the Chicago Reader (November 20, 1987). — J.R.

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CROSS MY HEART

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Armyan Bernstein

Written by Armyan Bernstein and Gail Parent

With Martin Short, Annette O’Toole, Paul Reiser, and Joanna Kerns.

Like a 3-D movie, in which the illusion of depth is utterly dependent on the spectator’s rigidly foursquare frontal viewing position, Armyan Bernstein’s Cross My Heart is flat and fuzzy around the edges; tilt your head slightly, and the roundness of the characters vanishes immediately. But because the characters holding the center of the screen are nearly always Martin Short and Annette O’Toole — consummate pros commanding and regulating the space between and around them like two generals at a summit conference — there’s rarely any reason to look aside; our attention is riveted.

For all their charisma, one wouldn’t have thought O’Toole or Short capable of such mastery on the basis of their separate and earlier outings. Despite his frequent brilliance on SCTV and Saturday Night Live, mainly as a parodist of narcissistic TV and movie personalities ranging from Dick Cavett to Jerry Lewis (by way of Katharine Hepburn), Short was both literally and figuratively dwarfed by Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in Three Amigos, although admittedly all three amigos were mainly stranded by the anemic comic material.… Read more »

Lie Lady Lie [HOUSESITTER]

From the Chicago Reader (June 12, 1992). — J.R.

HOUSESITTER

** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Frank Oz

Written by Mark Stein and Brian Grazer

With Steve Martin, Goldie Hawn, Dana Delany, Julie Harris, Donald Moffat, Peter MacNicol, Richard B. Shull, Laurel Cronin, Roy Cooper, and Christopher Durang.

I’ve seen previews of two summer comedies so far — Sister Act and Housesitter – that have elicited gales of hysterical laughter from their mainly young audiences. In both cases the hysteria and volume of the laughter seemed a bit out of proportion. The one-joke premise of Sister Act – that there’s something indescribably hilarious about nuns behaving slightly irreverently — smacks more of quiet desperation growing out of repression than of something to feel happy about. I suspect that if I were a Catholic I’d feel more offended than charmed by the complacency of this running gag, whatever Emile Ardolino’s efficiency as a director. There’s a certain darkness behind many of the laughs in Housesitter, too, but at least they relate to a zeitgeist I can feel part of.

The main comic staple of Housesitter, apart from the enjoyable physical clowning of Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, is a theme I associate especially with the comedies of Billy Wilder: the baroque complications that grow out of elaborate lies.… Read more »

Reasons for Kicking and Screaming

This essay about Noah Baumbach’s first feature was commissioned by Criterion for their DVD of Kicking and Screaming, and was written around May 2006. — J.R.

“There’s plenty of wit on the surface,” I wrote in my capsule review of Kicking and Screaming when it was released a little over a decade ago, “but the pain of paralysis comes through loud and clear.” Having voluntarily spent five years as an undergraduate myself, I could and still can find plenty of reasons to identify with the four desperate antiheroes of this brittle comedy, who graduate from college and then proceed to spend the next half year on or around campus, doing as little as possible.

Grover (Josh Hamilton), expecting to live in Brooklyn with his girlfriend, Jane (Olivia d’Abo), is so dumbstruck and angry when she accepts a scholarship to study in Prague that he won’t reply to any of her phone messages, and can only brood over their past in five strategically placed flashbacks, each one heralded by a black-and-white snapshot of her. Otis (Carlos Jacott) finds himself incapable of flying to grad school in Milwaukee, only one time zone away, and reverts to living with his mother. Max (Chris Eigeman), who’d rather label broken glass as such on the floor than sweep it up, finds nothing better to do than chide Otis, do crossword puzzles, and have sex with Miami (Parker Posey), the girlfriend of Skippy (Jason Wiles).… Read more »

We Are All the Same in the Dark

From The Guardian (15 June 2002). — J.R.

I recently found myself arguing with an Australian friend about Tsai Ming-liang’s film What Time Is It There? – a disagreement pointing to contradictory notions about how the world seems to be changing. According to Adrian Martin, with whom I am editing a book on global cinephilia, the film “is all about ‘uncommunicating vessels’: Paris and Taipei, a man and a woman, the living and the dead, unsynchronised time zones, incompatible languages, unreciprocal desires”.

“There is a moment,” he said, “when we need cruel reminders of the realities that disturb any premature fantasies of oneness.”

For me, the film is a triumph of communication and even a kind of togetherness. “It is a Taiwanese-French co-production,” I pointed out, “and Tsai does reveal a certain connectedness, congruence, unity, even hope — not so much on the screen but inside each viewer’s consciousness, where it really counts. There’s even what I’d call a happy ending.”

Actually, we’re both right. From one point of view — mine in this exchange — nationality is already on its way to becoming irrelevant, except as a way for multinational companies to define parts of the global market. For me a major part of the significance of September 11 was its suggestion that the US could be as unsafe as anywhere else — and that even New Yorkers could get a taste of what it has been like to live in Baghdad.… Read more »